MOSCOW (Reuters) – Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev claimed responsibility on Friday for the Russian school siege in which more than 320 hostages were killed, half of them children, and threatened more attacks by any means he saw fit.
Basayev, Russia’s most wanted man, expressed regret for the bloody outcome in Beslan, blaming it on the Kremlin. He made clear there would be no let-up in rebel attacks in the future in the campaign for an independent Chechnya.
“We are not bound by any circumstances, or to anybody, and we will continue to fight as is convenient and advantageous to us, and by our rules,” he said in a statement.
The statement, that also gave a chilling account of his spending on attacks that have killed well over 400 people in a period of less than two weeks, appeared on rebel Web Site www.kavkazcenter.com a day after President Vladimir Putin ruled out negotiations with Chechen separatists.
Putin said the Beslan attackers were part of international terrorism.
Putin’s tough stance has disappointed many Western leaders who had hoped for a rethink of Chechen policy after Beslan to end the 10-year conflict which has cost thousands of lives.
Basayev confirmed Russian suspicions his group had also masterminded suicide bomb blasts that brought down two passenger planes over Russia on August 24 killing 90 people and two other bomb attacks in Moscow.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage denounced Basayev. “He has proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that he is inhuman. Anyone who would use (the killing of) innocents for political aims is not worthy of existence in the type of society that we endorse,” he told a news conference in Warsaw.
Basayev said units of his Riyadus-Salikhin group had carried out the September 1 attack on the school in southern Russia, seizing more than 1,000 hostages.
It ended just over two days later in a bloodbath with Russian special forces storming the school amid bomb blasts and shooting.
He referred to it as the “North-West operation” — drawing a parallel with the Moscow theater siege in October 2002 which he also ordered. The musical “North-East” was being performed at the theater when an armed group seized it leading to a siege that ended with the deaths of 129 hostages.
Basayev said the Beslan attackers had demanded the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya and, in the absence of this, the resignation of Putin.
“NO LINKS TO BIN LADEN”
Basayev, taking up Putin’s charges of links between Chechen separatists and a wider international network of terror, denied any links with al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden (news – web sites).
“I don’t know bin Laden. I don’t get money from him, but I wouldn’t turn it down,” he said.
Basayev outlined the costs of recent attacks.
The plane explosions cost $4,000 to carry out, two explosions in Moscow $7,000 and the bill for the Beslan attack came to 8,000 euros ($9,700), he said.
The heavily-bearded Basayev has been fighting Russian forces for over 13 years. He is reported to have lost 11 relatives including his wife in Russian attacks in Chechnya in 1995 and has only one foot after treading on a mine in 2000.
The Kremlin put up a bounty of $10 million for him and Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov in the aftermath of the Beslan school tragedy. Maskhadov has denied involvement.
Foreign-based human rights groups on Friday renewed pleas to Putin to change tack on Chechnya to head off further bloodshed.
Lev Ponomaryov of the Geneva-based International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, speaking to reporters in the Kazakh capital Astana, urged Putin to consider talks with Maskhadov, a former elected president of Chechnya.
Many Russian officials rallied to Putin’s defense however, saying the gunmen’s demands for a withdrawal of Russian forces and Putin’s resignation had been unrealistic.
Basayev said the 33-member Beslan group had included 12 Chechen men, two Chechen women, two Arabs and others from various Caucasus national groups. (Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov in Astana and Nathaniel Espino in Warsaw)